Blog Post

Dear Media: This is What People Who Use Marijuana Look Like

Sharda Sekaran

Global political and business leaders are talking seriously about ending marijuana prohibition everywhere from D.C. to Davos. Recent polls say a majority of Americans are in favor of legalizing marijuana – and not just in the states you’d expect but even in Missouri, Indiana, Texas, Florida and Louisiana. In Washington State, Colorado and the country of Uruguay, marijuana is now legally regulated – not to mention the twenty states and D.C. that have implemented medical marijuana laws since 1996.

It would seem that marijuana has finally entered the mainstream of U.S. and international politics.

However, someone has neglected to tell the many news outlets that continue to recycle the same old “Cheech & Chong” images that should have been retired decades ago. After all, half of American adults have tried marijuana and they can’t possibly all look like stoner stereotypes.

Comments about the overuse of tired old “stoner” images have popped up recently on Bloomberg TV, Huffington Post and Forbes. Most recently, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Matt Richtel took to Twitter to call out his own paper for using a stereotypical image (literally of Cheech & Chong) for an otherwise serious story about scientific studies on marijuana’s impact on driving skills. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve cringed while watching a serious news segment about the national debate over marijuana policy become overshadowed by relentless footage of guys wearing head-to-toe marijuana leaf accessories and tie-dye while ripping bong hits at a 420 fest. Similarly, Sheryl Sandberg and Getty Images recently partnered on a similar project to provide non-sexist stock images of women at work – ones that don’t look like outtakes from “Mad Men.”

I had my own turning point of frustration last year, when I wrote a piece for NBC’s news site The Grio about how the end of marijuana prohibition will affect African-Americans, who represent a vastly  disproportionate share of the 750,000 people still being arrested for marijuana in the U.S. every year. What picture did the editors pick to run with my story? An image of a man emitting billowing clouds of smoke from the most enormous blunt you have ever seen in your life. I requested that they consider using a photo more appropriate to the piece, to no avail. Frankly, I was so embarrassed by the image that I didn’t even share the piece among family and friends, as I normally would do.

Why do stereotypical images persist even though today’s marijuana consumer might look more like your Aunt Bettie or your accountant than The Dude – and now that vaporizers, edibles and topical creams have rendered the ubiquitous “joint” somewhat obsolete? One reason may be lack of existing images that show regular people using marijuana in an everyday context. After all, marijuana is still illegal in many places, and consumers may be reluctant to have their images plastered everywhere.

That’s why the Drug Policy Alliance has endeavored to provide media outlets with ready-to-use stock photos of everyday people who use marijuana. These images, shot by San Francisco-based photographer Sonya Yruel, are examples of the type of photos that media could be using when doing a story about marijuana legalization – patients who use marijuana to relieve debilitating pain, or people losing their homes and their jobs because of a marijuana arrest.  We are making these photos open license and free to use for non-commercial editorial purposes, and we hope they will help make the jobs of editors easier and the content more relevant.

The stock photos we are providing are of California medical marijuana patients who gave us permission to use their faces in order to make these images available for open use to media outlets. Please feel free to use them for marijuana stories that are more geared toward accuracy than predictable cheap shots.

Sharda Sekaran is the managing director of communications for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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